With kids needing so much help in remote learning, we may be pushed to become the parents we never wanted to be.
On the first day of remote learning, my daughter was nervous she’d press the wrong button. So I pulled up a chair next to her bedroom desk and she and I began third grade.
The school has set up a system called Schoology, which connects every caregiver with their child’s schoolwork. Every time she (and I) submitted an assignment, my phone dinged, signaling that I may (and should?) check on her work. Meanwhile, her teacher graciously ignored the big elephants — me, along with about 10 other parents — in the virtual room.
Welcome to e-learning, where some parents have become reluctant helicopters, circling their kids as they attempt to learn, helping them with their every move. Throughout the country, grown-ups privileged enough to be able to stay at home, or to even have a few minutes of “spare time,” can be found sitting adjacent to their children on Zoom — or just a few feet away, poking their dependents when attention wanes, and yelling at them to raise their hands, speak into the camera and stop fidgeting.
Andrea Cordts Pastin, a senior content manager for an SEO agency, moved a video baby monitor next to her 6-year-old so she could listen to class as she works in another room.
“We have to listen in to see if the teacher gives her instructions for the independent learning times,” she said. She also pays attention when the teacher directs her daughter to a specific book, handout or worksheet because the instructions can get confusing when you’re 6.
Delcan and Co
“Unfortunately, since she knows we’re listening, she just calls out to us when she needs something because she knows we’ll run it over to her,” Pastin said. “Any independence she had built up has gone completely out the window.”
The issue is that most younger students tend to be unable to manage remote learning on their own regardless of the teacher’s proficiency, said Beyhan Farhadi, a postdoctoral visitor at York University in Toronto, who researches online learning, education policy and equity.
A grown-up will need to help with everything from getting the child logged on, redirecting them to focus, and solving any technical problems. For play-based activities, the caregiver may need to support their child by getting materials and reexplaining the tasks, Dr. Farhadi said.
“We often underestimate the role of the adult in the room, in person, to provide motivating variables to learn,” she said. “This includes detecting nonverbal cues when they are struggling to ask questions, since reluctant learners are less likely to advocate for themselves.”
So are we going to be forced to be helicoptering our children all year?
Virginia Riggs, a Chicago-based stay-at-home-mom, is worried that this may be the case for her three children, ages 3, 5 and 8. She sits with them all day as they do their e-learning, pausing to wrangle an occasional child back to the desk after he wanders away mid-lesson.
Whenever a teacher calls on her pre-K son, Riggs reaches over to unmute him, because he refuses to press that button, and then she repeats the question to him.
Riggs had been a part-time church choir director before the pandemic, but she — like so many other parents — had to choose between work and her children’s education.
“The first couple of days last week, I didn’t even eat or take a shower,” she said.
A study of more than 2,500 parents released in September by FlexJobs, an online job service for those seeking flexible work, found that since March, 40 percent of working parents had to change their job situation. A quarter of those surveyed voluntarily reduced their hours, while 15 percent quit their jobs entirely.
Teachers weigh in
It may be difficult for parents, but this helicoptering approach — deliberate or not — can be tough on teachers as well.
Funmilola Macaulay, an assistant principal at Horizon Science Academy in Chicago, said she hates to admit this, but the consensus among educators she’s spoken with is that parental involvement is the worst part of remote learning.
Some parents chime in during class to offer lesson recommendations, said Natasha Brejnak, the parent of a first-grader at a Chicago public school, who notices this because, of course, she’s watching her own son during e-learning.
“Everyone has a preference for what more effective teaching would be and knows their child very well, but I feel that’s just not a realistic expectation, and not fair to someone who has to use a broad approach to apply to all students,” Brejnak said, adding that she thinks the teachers are doing very well.
Lorena Rojas, who teaches kindergarten in Chicago, says she’s grateful for all the help she can get from parents at home, though at the beginning of the school year she was nervous that the parents (whom she spotted in the room) would judge her teaching style.
Kids this age need to be redirected, reminded, affirmed, high-fived and even tapped to be reminded to pay attention. Rojas said she can’t see how her students are sitting, how they’re holding their pencil as they erase, if they’ve inverted their letters.
So she’s “thankful” for her students and their parents, who can observe how their children are doing those things.
“I know most of them are working remotely as they assist their child,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group of helicopters.”
E-learning without a parent hovering
It’s difficult to figure out a balance: How are young students able to master e-learning without an adult’s constant supervision and help?
“This is the question that keeps me up at night,” said Deborah Stipek, professor of education at Stanford University. “Some parents are able to stop or schedule work to allow them to support their child during the online school hours, but that is a minority.”
Omari Eccleston-Brown, the director of Believe in Learning, an international private tutoring company based in Britain, and author of “The Secret to Happy Homework,” has been an online teacher for eight years, so he’s familiar with all these issues.
Eccleston-Brown said there’s good parental help and there’s not-so-good parental help.
“As an e-tutor, I want parents to be available but not necessarily to be present,” he said. This means sitting nearby in case there are technical difficulties, but being out of the room during the lesson, as that’s distracting for the child.
One thing parents need to remember is that while the idea of learning online may be foreign to them, kids have grown up with devices such as iPads and laptops. They’re digital natives. Eccleston-Brown said he often hears parents whispering answers to their child, thinking he can’t hear them.
“They tend to assume that if their child isn’t getting the answers straight away, it’s because they can’t understand the platform or they’re distracted by the screen,” he said. “They don’t think that they might just be working it out or, in fact, that they’re learning — confronting something new that they don’t quite know the answer to yet and figuring it out.”
Nevertheless, children are going to need help, and a lot of it.
In a virtual environment, the teacher is still responsible for instruction and guidance, but the support of an in-person caregiver is necessary to supervise, nurture and encourage their student to remain engaged and to complete schoolwork, said Jamie Candee, C.E.O. of Edmentum, an online learning program based in Bloomington, Minn.
But don’t give up all hope that your child will work independently eventually, Candee said. The best way for parents to step back is to help their kids practice the technology to log onto programs. It’s also important to offer accessible resources to use when they get stuck.
“Write down passwords and instructions so students can refer to them when they need them rather than having to go to their parent or caregiver,” Candee said. Picture passwords may help for kids who can’t read yet.
It will also help to establish a procedure for getting help so you aren’t disrupted every five minutes. And create set times of the day when your child knows that you will check on them, Candee said. When non-urgent questions come up, they will be addressed then. Place a sign on your office or desk that signals when it’s OK to be interrupted for urgent issues.
“Students have to learn that your activities are important, and sometimes they will need to wait for help, even if they believe their e-learning issue is urgent,” she said.
The good news? Once age-appropriate expectations are clearly articulated by the educator and agreed upon, and followed by the student and caregiver, then students will develop a routine, and should require less support from parents, Candee said.
In my situation, I realized that my daughter is more lazy than she is incompetent. I’ve now moved myself downstairs, one floor below her. The new rule is that if she needs me, she must come all the way down 14 steps. This has cut the number of times she’s actually called, “Mom!” from approximately 4,258 per day to maybe 27. It’s a start.